Passing the Buck

Any high school history student is aware of the famous sign that President Harry Truman kept on his desk: "The Buck Stops Here."

Which means: If you are a true leader, you take full responsibility for what happens when you are in power.

But for many modern leaders, there is a tendency to blame others for catastrophes or terrorist attacks that happened during their term. For some reason, our country has given a free pass to people like George Bush and Dick Cheney on the national level, and to a certain extent, Rudy Giuliani here in New York.

Lost amidst the 24-7 coverage of the Paris terror attacks has been the emerging details of America's intelligence operation in the months leading up to 9/11 in 2001. Former CIA Chief George Tenet has recently revealed that he tried on many occasions in the summer of 2001 to alert Bush and Cheney and anyone who would listen in the administration that an attack on the United States was imminent. Chatter in the Middle East picked up by the CIA showed that terrorists wanted to wreak havoc on the United States.

Why is this important now? Because we need to understand how our leadership failed to heed the warnings of our intelligence leaders so this never happens again. After the Paris terror bombings - the second horrific calamity to befall that cosmopolitan city in the past year - we are starkly reminded that there is a very thin blue line protecting citizens in big cities from terrorists.

What did Bush and Cheney know and when did they know it? Put these two men before Congressional hearings like we recently witnessed with Hillary Clinton over Benghazi, a small American intelligence breakdown when compared to 9-11.

It would be useful for Americans and our current -- and future -- leaders to hear what went wrong in 2001. We don't necessarily need to make this a witch-hunt like the Republican congressional leaders attempted with Benghazi; I think we all should want to know what our leaders did and didn't do to protect Americans.

When you boil government down to its essence, our federal, state and city government leaders are elected to protect us and to keep order. That is what our hard-earned tax dollars pay for and we have a right to know about the good, the bad and the ugly.

Speaking of ugly, I find it very hard sometimes to watch former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani go on Fox News and fulminate against President Obama. Giuliani had a very strong first term as New York's Mayor, but what few people ever discuss was his jaw-droppingly clueless decision to place New York's Emergency Command Center in the World Trade Center.

After it was attacked in 1993.

This foolhardy executive decision contributed to the chaos on 9/11. Lost in the halo of Giuliani's courageous leadership post-9/11 is this very important question: Why did he place the Emergency Command Center in a building that was once the target of terrorists? Where were those hearings?

It wouldn't be a bad idea to have City Council hearings about the history of the city's Emergency Command Center as a way of understanding our city's current preparedness for another potential terrorist attack. Are the police and firefighters now properly synched up to work in unison, a problem that also hindered the response on 9/11? Are their communication tools (radios that didn't work well then) strong enough to withstand a potentially chaotic day? Are they immunized from cyber-attacks or hacking that will likely accompany a terror strike?

Which brings us to the increasingly evil world we now live in. What is being done to make sure that New Yorkers are safe?

For the first time in over a decade, I let global terror fears affect my travel decisions. Last week, instead of taking a subway home through Times Square, I decided to stay on the East Side line and bypass the latest potential target. I do not think I am alone in this kind of thinking.

If I were a French citizen, I would be asking: Why didn't the government of President Francois Hollande know that another attack was brewing after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January? Is Hollande the right person to make sure this doesn't happen again?

After 9/11 we lionized Bush for seeming strong and tough. Then he led us into a reckless war in Iraq and started the messy fall of dominoes that is now the collapsing Middle East. Giuliani was similarly put on a pedestal because of his mixture of toughness and compassion after 9/11. And around the world some are praising French President Hollande for his strong militaristic response in Syria after 129 of his citizens were brutally murdered.

We should not equate post-tragedy toughness with perfect leadership. It's time we started asking questions like: How did this happen?

The answers to all these questions may lead us to a much safer place.

Tom Allon, the president of City & State, NY, is a former Mayoral candidate. He can be reached at tallon@cityandstateny.com.